Talking Ball: About Davey Johnson

Davey Johnson had a long, successful managerial career after a solid 13 years as a pro. (via MissChatter)

Over the past five years, Erik Sherman has established a reputation as a workhorse among baseball authors. During that span, he has written four books, including King of Queens, a critically acclaimed volume on the 1986 New York Mets, and put out a revised edition of Out at Home, his heart-rending book about the late Glenn Burke.

The pattern continues in 2018. Sherman’s latest book is a comprehensive look at the life and career of Davey Johnson, a onetime star with the Baltimore Orioles and a successful manager with several franchises. Davey Johnson: My Wild Ride in Baseball and Beyond, explores Johnson’s playing career in the major leagues and Japan, and his many managing stops, from the Inter-American League to the National League.

In an email exchange this month with The Hardball Times, Sherman covered plenty of territory, including Johnson’s relationships with Earl Weaver and Hank Aaron, his feud with Frank Cashen, and trying times with some of the most meddlesome owners in the game.

Markusen: You have written about a variety of subjects over the years, from Steve Blass to Glenn Burke, and about teams like the championship Mets. Why now the subject of Davey Johnson? What drew you to want to explore his career and life more closely?

Sherman: I have always been fascinated by Davey Johnson. He has lived a very “Gumpian” baseball life, in that he always seemed to find himself right smack-dab in the middle of some historic event, team, or achievement. There are 35 chapters in this book and we try to cover every darned one of [those events]. Nobody has traveled the world spreading baseball like Davey—he has played and managed seemingly everywhere the game is played. He was in the lineup when teammate Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record and, then, two years later, was in the identical situation in Tokyo when Sadaharu Oh also eclipsed Ruth’s mark.

Davey was truly the one who brought Sabermetrics into baseball in the late 1960’s, well before anyone ever heard of Billy Beane. He played in four World Series with the Orioles, though what most people recall is the irony of his making the last out in the ’69 Fall Classic against the very team he would go on to manage to their only other championship—the ’86 Mets. He had the last hit ever off of the great Sandy Koufax, for which Koufax quipped, “I knew then I needed to retire!”

Oh, I can go on and on. But the one aspect of his career that has always intrigued me has been how one of the most successful managers in big league history either kept getting fired or resigned after leading his clubs to great success. After the book I did with Mookie Wilson, (Mookie: Life, Baseball and the ’86 Mets) I sort of promised myself I would only write books on my own—no longer be a co-author. But Davey was always one of those exceptions in my mind—much the same way if someone like Aaron wanted me to ghost write his book. Johnson is such a complex man.

Markusen: With the Orioles, Johnson played for several seasons under the leadership of Earl Weaver. How much of an influence do you think that Weaver was on Johnson? Did Frank Robinson, a teammate who would later become a manager, also influence Davey?

Sherman: Weaver got to really know his players, which was an attribute Davey carried into his own managing style and made him a so-called “player’s manager.” But Earl also was a master at working and nurturing a pitching staff, and great starting and relief pitching would prove to be the cornerstone of those great Mets teams of the 1980’s under Davey. If you watch old video of the Orioles, you will notice how often Davey is seated next to Earl. Weaver was obviously a major influence on him, from their time together in the minor leagues on up to the big leagues.

As for Frank Robinson, Davey was, like everyone else, in awe of his talent. And there’s no question Davey admired Robinson’s hard-nosed approach to the game. But other than that, I think Davey sort of viewed all of his teammates as equals. There’s a great story in the book about how Davey, as a rookie in ’66, picked up on something Frank was doing wrong in the batter’s box and told him about it. You have to understand how this sort of thing—a rookie giving hitting advice to a veteran of Robinson’s stature—never happens. Anyway, Frank made the adjustment that Davey recommended and went on an absolute tear. Robinson ended up winning the Triple Crown that year.

Markusen: In 1973, after being traded to the Atlanta Braves, Johnson exploded at the plate, hitting 43 home runs. Is it true that he gives a good part of the credit to Hank Aaron’s presence in the clubhouse?

Sherman: There’s no question that playing alongside Aaron helped Davey, but Johnson, up to that point, had always been taught to hit the so-called “Orioles’ Way,” going the other way like Brooks Robinson. So now, in Atlanta, he started pulling the ball more, which really helped him hit for more power. Another reason was how, soon after joining the Braves, their trainer was able to fix a long-time injury Davey had struggled with while in Baltimore. So it was really those two factors, more than anything, that allowed Davey to tie the all-time single-season mark for home runs by a second baseman—a record that still stands today.

Markusen: Did Davey talk to you at all about his experience as a manager of the Miami Amigos in the Inter-American League, which was a fly-by-night minor league that existed for only half a season? If so, how did that shape the manager that he would become?

Sherman:  It was one of Davey’s greatest successes! It was his first stint as a manager following his playing days and it served as a springboard for the rest of his career. It was a great experience for him because he really had a hand in all aspects of the club; it was the closest he ever came to being both a general manager and manager of a club. There are some wonderful stories about that team—a movie could be made about his experience in Miami!

Crowning the King of Baseball
Administrators of a venerable but little-known award have some work to do.

Markusen: In the 1980’s, Johnson received his first shot at managing in the major leagues, with an up-and-coming Mets team. In retrospect, does Davey think he should have been tougher on some of the Mets’ “problem” players, like Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden?

Sherman: I’m not sure if “tougher” would be the right word. As their manager, he felt a responsibility to make them the best players they could possibly be and, since they fell short of that, he somewhat blames himself a bit. But he was like a father to Straw—something Darryl never had growing up. And with Doc, nobody was more shocked by his revelation in the spring of ’87 that he had to go into rehab for drugs than Davey. Gooden had great parents and was always the first to come and the last to leave the ballpark—and had a great attitude.

They are both tragic figures, but maybe more so with Gooden, because he seemingly had a much better support system than Straw did growing up.  Davey always believed that ballplayers should police themselves as much as possible, but I’m sure in the cases of Doc and Darryl, he wishes he could have seen the signs.  In Davey’s day, ballplayers drank.  They weren’t into anything heavier than that like cocaine.  There are regrets, but Doc and Darryl were grown men—you can’t follow them 24/7 or pick their friends for them.

Markusen: How difficult was his relationship with Mets general manager Frank Cashen?

Sherman: This is, to me, the heart of Davey’s whole Mets story and why the club didn’t have a dynasty. After ’86, the two were just never in synch with one another. And you would think, after all those years together in Baltimore and New York, they would have shared a similar philosophy, but they didn’t.

Cashen made transactions Davey never wanted to make. The team was so different after their “enforcers,” Kevin Mitchell and Ray Knight, weren’t brought back for the ’87 season. And then others, like Lenny Dykstra, Rick Aguilera and Roger McDowell, would soon be dealt away, as well. Despite all of his winning, Davey had less and less input into the roster as his time with the Mets went on. So his relationship with Frank was frosty, to say the least.

Markusen: Johnson also managed for two of the more difficult owners in recent history, Marge Schott and Peter Angelos. Although he did not have the kind of success, particularly postseason success, that he would have wanted with those teams, should we give him some extra credit simply for having to deal with two meddlesome bosses?

Sherman: No question about it!

Ahhh, where to begin with Schott? Davey would actually receive messages from her through her St. Bernard. He received a mandate from her to marry his future wife, Susan, to make her an “honest woman: or else!” And Marge made Ray Knight a manager-in-waiting no matter what Davey achieved with the Reds. Those were just a few examples of the hell she made for Davey. So despite turning that Reds organization around, the whole experience was awful for him. We called the chapter “The Red Menace” for good reason.

But I think his experience with Angelos was much worse. Davey knew Marge was a little crazy, so he expected more from Peter. Managing the Orioles was Davey’s dream job, but it would become a nightmare after two largely successful seasons because of Angelos’ meddling into the affairs of the clubhouse. It got very personal, with Davey’s wife getting dragged into it by Angelos for her charity work.

How bad was it? The very day Davey was awarded Manager of the Year, he resigned from the club. The thing that Davey told me that really stuck was how general managers and owners generally don’t like their managers receiving the credit they do for building a winner. They get jealous. And I think that’s what happened everywhere Davey went—especially in New York and Baltimore.

Markusen: Johnson’s last managerial job took him to Washington and the Nationals. Do you get the sense that Johnson wanted to manage again, that he felt like he left the Washington job before his time?

Sherman: Yes, I think Davey would have liked to keep managing for a while longer.  He still watches Nationals games on television whenever he can. Johnson has one of the greatest baseball minds I’ve ever known. Watch a game with him like I have and you’ll learn things about the game you’ve never even thought of. He knew Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg when they were teenagers. I think he would have considered it one of his greatest achievements to bring a World Series title to Washington.

Markusen: Could Davey manage in today’s game, given the interference and control exerted by front office? How would Johnson respond to the idea of having to have his lineup approved by the general manager?

Sherman: No, he couldn’t. I think Davey could have been one of those rare breeds of baseball men that could have actually been both a GM and field manager simultaneously. So the idea that a GM would try to approve his lineup or give regular direction about how he runs his ball club would never work with Johnson. Maybe he would have listened to his general manager’s point of view, but he would always do things his way.

Davey Johnson: My Wild Ride in Baseball and Beyond hits bookstores on May 15. It can be pre-ordered at amazon.com or from Triumph Books at www.triumphbooks.com.


Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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Dennis Bedard
Member
Dennis Bedard
Thanks for a very informative article. Glad you brought up a trivia question about the ’69 series when Johnson made the last out. I never realized he was the last man to ever get a hit off of Koufax. Re Weaver and Frank Robinson: In Weaver on Strategy, the Earl says he never said more than two words to Robinson during the time he managed him because he didn’t have to. Johnson was traded to Atlanta for Earl Williams, a left handed hitting catcher who hit for power. The O’s were loaded with up and coming infield talent like Rich… Read more »
mike2017
Member
mike2017

It was bobby grich and mark belanger, not dauer and decinces

Dennis Bedard
Member
Dennis Bedard

You are correct about Bobby Grich and not Decinces. But Belanger was moved into the lineup in ’69 when Luis Aparicio was traded back to the White Sox. By the time Johnson was traded he was a permanent part of the Orioles’ infield.

Marc Schneider
Member
Marc Schneider

Playing in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium probably didn’t hurt Davey either in terms of hitting home runs.